The local body polls in Kerala are scheduled to be held from December 8 to 14 in three phases, with the results to be announced on December 16. Although the election had to be delayed by a month-and-a-half on account of the pandemic, there is no let-up in campaigning and other political activities associated with the polls.
In fact, unlike local body polls of the past, this campaign has been dominated by state-level issues, as the Pinarayi Vijayan government continues to face the heat of central investigation agencies in the aftermath of the gold smuggling scam.
The two major political alliances in Kerala, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), are also battling hard to stave off a buoyant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) contesting along with its alliance partner, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), as the third alternative. The BJP’s markedly improved show in the preceding 2015 poll, when it emerged as a party with pan-Kerala representation at the local level, had made it a force to reckon with in the 2016 assembly elections.
Even as the Congress and the UDF is trying to emerge as the winner of this election, the alliance it has entered into with the Jamaat-e-Islami-promoted Welfare Party has not gone down well with sections of society. Unlike the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a constituent of the UDF, which practices Muslim identity politics under the secular ambit, the Jamaat-e-Islami is a theo-political organisation whose goal is the formation of an Islamic nation. Despite all its recent makeover attempts to appear progressive, there has been no change on fundamental issues for the Jamaat-e-islami.
The Congress and the IUML have gone ahead with this alliance by dubbing it as a ‘local tie-up’ despite being fully aware of the risks associated with it. Even the Samastha Kerala Jamiat-ul-Ulema, which backs the IUML, has expressed its reservations on the move.
For the UDF, the straightforward calculation is that this collaboration would help it reverse its fortunes in Kozhikode, where the Jamaat-e-islami has pockets of influence, with the margins being so close. Even in the UDF-dominated Malappuram, this tie-up is supposed to bolster its numbers, with the Jamaat-e-islami’s fully-transferable votes.
What the UDF hasn’t anticipated here is a blowback from the secular and liberal folks. For instance, in 2009, when the LDF paraded Abdul Nazer Mahdani, the one-time firebrand Islamic preacher and leader of the PDP (formerly the Islamic Seva Sangh) on stage with Vijayan anticipating a windfall, it resulted in a negative impact.
A chastised LDF learnt its lesson to not publicise such tactical alliances at the local level with outfits including the Jamaat-e-islami in the elections that followed. In fact, ever since the formation of the Welfare Party in 2011, it has largely supported the LDF, with some exceptions, such as supporting the late MI Shanawas of the Congress in Wayanad. This changed only after the 2019 general elections, when almost all the Muslim outfits in Kerala decided to back the UDF against the Narendra Modi-led BJP. The LDF has since upped the ante against Jamaat-e-islami which ended up further solidifying the outfit’s alliance with the UDF.
Although the state Congress leadership has tried to play down the alliance and even deny it, that hasn’t cut ice as UDF Convener MM Hassan came down to Kozhikode to meet with the Ameer of Jamaat-e-islami. Moreover, senior Congress leaders like K Muraleedharan, the MP from Vadakara, have publicly owned up to it.
Apart from the possibility of a blowback from the UDF’s secular electorate, the consequent consolidation of a ‘Hindu vote bank’, even at a limited scale — something the BJP has been working on without much success in Kerala — is another possible fallout.
According to writer and political observer MN Karassery, less than 1 percent of the nearly 10 million Muslims in Kerala owe their allegiance to the organisation. However, the mass-transferability of their votes is what makes it an alluring proposition for the UDF. The central leadership of the Congress has washed its hands off the move saying they weren’t cognisant of it.
In the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Delhi late last year, the cadre of the Jamaat-e-islami had tried to turn the character of the secular movement into a religious one by chanting Takbir and demonising those who criticised it. This highlights why such an organisation, which hasn’t fully integrated itself into India’s secular ethos, cannot be a trusted ally while taking on the majoritarian BJP.Anand Kochukudy is a political commentator. Views are personal.